700 MHz PreGame Show: Cable Cos Largely Pass — No Surprise And A Win for Public

Yesterday was the day for companies interested in bidding in the 700 MHz auction to file their “Short Form” applications with the FCC. While it will still take a few days for the FCC to process the forms and for companies that made errors to correct the forms and give companies a chance to correct possible errors, we are seeing a few interesting developments already — notably in cable land. It is also interesting to see that MetroPCS and Leap never did get together before the auction.

On the cable side, no real surprise that most cable cos are sitting this one out. (Back in August, I already doubtful they’d want to play.) Actually, the mild surprise is that Cox is going it alone. I have not expected Spectrum Co. (the Comcast/Time Warner/other cable co joint venture) to bid, despite winning big in the 2006 and AWS auction and participating in the rulemaking for the 700 MHz auction. For one thing, thanks to the introduction of anonymous bidding, the cable cos cannot effectively target their industry rivals (like the telcos or the DBS guys) to drive up prices or block them altogether, as they did in the 2006 AWS auction. So a big motivator for the cable companies to participate, i.e. strategic blocking outside the value of the spectrum itself, is gone.

In addition, Sprint divorced itself from the partnership and shacked up with Google, leaving the cable cos with an ugly alimony settlement for the AWS auction and no wireless partner to help them build the network. And, finally, the cable guys haven’t figured out what the heck to do with the AWS spectrum they acquired last summer. While that went relatively cheap (45 cents/mhz pop), it still cost $2.5 Billion with nothing to show and a danger that if the cable cos don’t start building out a network they will lose the licenses at the end of the license term for failure to meet the mandatory performance metrics. (Licensees are required to meet build out and service requirements. The aren’t terribly onerous for the AWS band, but they do require you to build something and push a signal through it.) Given that the 700 MHz licenses have the most rigorous build out requirements ever (in no small part to ensure that folks like Spectrum Co. don’t win the spectrum and then “warehouse” it), the cable cos are very unlikely to buy spectrum on the off chance they’ll figure out something to do with it.

Finally, there is the big reason every is pointing to — the cable stock valuations. Cable stocks have declined significantly this year, both as a function of the general decline in the market and because it looks like Verizon bet right on fiber to the home. Competing against FIOS means that cable operators (particularly Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner) are in for another round of expensive capital investment to maintain their competitive footing or risk losing customers to FIOS. In this sort of situation, the last thing investors want to see is cable companies spending billions for licenses they can’t use unless they spend billions more to build networks from scratch.

This last is probably why Cablevision is sitting it out, despite vigorously playing in the AWS auction in ’06, and why Cox, which recently went private, has decided to toss its hat in the ring and play. Cox also has the advantage that licenses that overlap its territories (assuming it does not go for C Block or D Block) also have significant overlap with the area covered by AT&T with its purchase of Aloha. This potentially removes a major competitor for the A and B Block licenses, giving Cox a chance to get coverage of it’s network and offer a package of wireless and wireline services down the road. So Cox can ante up for a chance to catch a bargain without taking a stock hit. By contrast, Cablevision directly overlaps with Verizon for the licenses that cover its region and the adjacent markets into which Cablevision would want to expand. Verizon will fight like a tiger because it wants the spectrum, so the inability to block due to anonymous bidding does not help Cablevision. And, because Cablevision is publicly traded, even anteing for a chance to play will cost it big time.

UPDATE Apparently, Cablevision did file a short form. A Cablevision spokescritter said that Cablevision was reserving the right to bid, but declined to say if Cablevision would bid. Earlier stories I had seen said they wouldn’t bid. Well, I give them credit for trying. Good luck trying to break out of NYC.

All in all, I consider the elimination of Comcast and Time Warner as potential bidders to be a real win for the public interest. As I have written before, allowing cable companies to bid for this spectrum raises extremely serious competition problems and would make it virtually impossible to see a new, independent broadband provider emerge. Given that the 700 MHz auction creates a potential “transformative moment” for wireless broadband, and therefore potentially for broadband generally (especially the much hoped for “third pipe”), I breathe a huge sigh of relief to see the cable boys out of it.

Stay tuned . . . .

Verizon Open Platform: Looks Like A Big Bid For C Block and A Shout Out To Tim Wu

Tearing myself away for a moment from the drama and bitter disappointment of today’s cable vote, we have an announcement from Verizon that it will offer an “open platform” option for its wireless services. According to the news reports, starting in 2008, VZ will publish a standard for connecting to their network, host a conference for developers, work with developers, set up a testing lab to ensure that devices meet the standard and won’t harm the network, and allow devices to connect to the network. They also promise not to interfere with any application running on the device.

They pledge to make this available on the whole network. Not “just on a portion of the network, or a piece of spectrum that may become available after 2009.” For tech support, if you are a “bring your own device,” you can call VZ to make sure your device is connected but you are otherwise on your own.

Verizon says they are doing this in response to market demand. Rumors that this is an effort to head off regulation or declares an interest in C Block are baseless speculations of undisciplined internet bloggers like yr hmbl obdn’t. But they do stress several times on this press call that this is all about the market working, just as terminating early termination fees had nothing to do with regulatory pressure, so there is obviously no need to regulate.

Maybe. But while I’m certainly glad to see Verizon come around to my way of thinking that openness is the ultimate “killer app,” I think credit is due to three other events that helped Verizon see the light on openness: Tim Wu’s incredibly important paper on wireless Carterfone last February; Kevin Martin’s decision to put an “open devices” condition on the 22-MHz “C Block” licenses in the upcoming 700 MHz auction; and the iPhone hearing last July, where Congress made it clear they didn’t like the idea of locking desirable devices to a single provider.

Why? See below . . . .

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700 MHz Final Tweaks: Limited Relief for Frontline, Google Looks to Bid

So with the December 3 date for the filing of short forms to participate in the 700 MHz auction looming ever closer, we see some last minute shifting about and settling of a few lingering details. First, in the I called it category (as did my friend and fellow Wetmachiner Greg Rose, various news outlets report that Google seems increasingly likely to bid in the 700 MHz auction. Further support for the idea that Google really intends to bid comes from their filing a request for clarification from the FCC that when the FCC said “no discrimination,” they meant the usual statutory version that allows discounts for volume customers and such what (the usual statutory language prohibits “unreasonable discrimination,” which allows for things like bulk discounts provided everyone that meets the criteria gets the same deal).

Mind, it isn’t a sure thing Google will bid until it files a short form, and folks can file to bid without being willing to put up the money. But given the number of folks who said Greg and I were on crack for expecting Google to actually put up its own money to go against the likes of Verizon, we can perhaps be forgiven for patting ourselves on the back for being so far out ahead of the curve on this.

More importantly, perhaps, is the FCC’s decision last week to provide limited help to Frontline Wireless by allowing a designated entity (DE) that wins the D Block auction to wholesale its spectrum without losing its DE credit. (You can read the FCC Press release here and the full text of the Order here.) Now how does this help? And why limit it to D Block? And what the heck is a “DE” anyway?

Answers and speculations below . . . .

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Brief update on White Spaces

For those following the current White Spaces follies (or, “how Microsoft crashed an entire proceeding by treating spectrum as if it were software”) the FCC announced it will do further testing on white spaces prototypes.

That’s a modest victory for pro-white spaces forces, as the NAB had tried to leverage the failure of the (broken) Microsoft device to force the FCC to shut down the proceeding (or, more realistically, go with stationary devices and say no to mobile devices, with sufficient restrictions on power level and use of adjacent channels to make the white spaces virtually useless). At the same time, however, it ups the stakes pretty severely. Another “blue screen of static” and the NAB will probably get its way.

My sense is that a majority of Commissioners would like to see this happen, if they are convinced the engineering works. That doesn’t just mean a proof of concept. That means a demonstration that the technology today works sufficiently well that the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology can say with confidence “if devices follow these rules, they will not interfere with people trying to watch free over-the-air TV.” We know the theory works, but is the technology ready for prime time?

Stay tuned . . . .

The 700 MHz Dramedy Continues

Ya know, I had real hopes that, barring a Petition for Reconsideration or two, I was pretty much done with the 700 MHz auction. Sure, Verizon filed a lawsuit with the DC Circuit, but at least we could sit back and stop worrying about the FCC stuff. And besides, the lawsuit didn’t really have much of a chance anyway. So, after a grueling 6 months or so, I thought I could finally relax and turn to something new, like kicking the bejeezus out of the cable monopoly.

Hah.

As recent reports indicate, Verizon has apparently pressed the FCC to “clarify” the C Block conditions. I say “apparently” because Verizon has not actually filed a request for any sort of clarification, reconsideration, or declaratory ruling. Indeed, to my considerable annoyance, it took a modest reprimand from the Wireless Bureau and Martin’s staff for Verizon to actually put something in the record vaguely resembling a description of what Verizon’s most senior lobbyists actually discussed with the Chairman and his staff. Verizon, meanwhile, vigorously denies they ever asked for reconsideration (and, separately, that it finds the accusation that it violated the ex parte shocking and deeply offensive).

In any event, it appears the issue is whether or not Verizon (if it won the C Block licenses) could continue its practice of asking manufacturers to strip out or limit features or applications on devices that run on the C Block. Verizon argues that consumers love subsidized handsets and letting the cell phone operator make all the tough decisions (like what applications can run on the device), and it would therefore be cruel to deny the C Block licensee the right to offer such fantastic products and deals — as long as the C Block licensee will hook up any third party device that meets the technical standards.

To Martin’s credit, he reached out to the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC) and asked our opinion on whether the C Block licensee should be able to sell “crippled” devices as long as it will also connect any third party device to the network. Martin was apparently sufficiently impressed by my wisdom that he then tried to issue a clarification that Harold Feld is right and Verizon is wrong. The Democrats promptly moved to block, because they suspected a trap, since the idea that Martin would side with me over Verizon is apparently laughable (I have no doubt the Democrats mean that in a nice way and that it does not reflect on the quality of my wisdom). Of course, I have no idea what the proposed clarification actually said, since it is illegal to show me the actual predicisional text. But it is not illegal for Martin to say that he agreed with me or for the Dems to say that’s not how they read the proposed clarification. Remember, ambiguity is the essence of comedy.

In any event, as in any good dramedy, further hijinks naturally ensue from this potent combination of distrust and lack of information. Rumors of this “clarification” prompted Verizon’s arch-nemesis, supporter of wholesale access, and potential rival bidder Frontline to challenge Verizon’s efforts to get the rules changed. This triggered a response from Verizon that they hadn’t asked for a rules change, and that furthermore, on reconsideration, the FCC should issue a declaratory ruling that “Frontline is ugly and their VCs dress them funny.” Meanwhile, now with a full posse of PISC buddies, I went back to the FCC to explain that while I am always flattered to have the FCC declare my interpretation of its rules to be the law of the land (and encourage them to do this on a more regular basis), we at PISC think the Order is perfectly clear and that if anyone wants it clarified they should have to formally file a motion and ask.

One might logically ask why, if Verizon wants the Order changed or clarified, it doesn’t just file a motion and ask. That would be a problem for Verizon, however, because it cannot simultaneously file a Recon Petition under 47 USC 405 and a Petition for Review by a federal appellate court under 47 USC 402. There are ways to try to get around this, but this statutory conflict would explain why Verizon has danced around this issue and pretended it is merely a continuation of its previous arguments properly filed in this docket. Assuming, of course, that they actually want a clarification, which they claim they don’t.

So, if Verizon hasn’t put in an explicit request, why does Martin feel a need to act? Does Verizon really have a leg to stand on, or is this just an effort to refight the same battle? And what about the tech companies? Why don’t we want the FCC to proclaim that I am right on my interpretation of the Order? And will the Red Sox finally face the Cubs in a World Series “curse off?”

O.K., I have no clue on the last one. But as for the rest of these questions (and perhaps a bit more), see below….

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Sprint Swaps Spectrum Co. for Google: Care To Guess Who Bids in 700 MHz Now?

As I repeatedly observed during the lead up to last Tuesday’s FCC meeting to decide the rules for the 700 MHz band, it is an extremely risky business to try to guess who will bid at this stage. Despite the much shorter time between announcing the rules for the AWS auction last year and the time bidders needed to get their forms in, numerous companies changed their positions, created new ventures, and generally did the unexpected.

Now, with everyone speculating whether whether or not Google will really bid or whether the cablecos will give the telcos a run for their money, comes a significant change. In the course of a week, Sprint has forged an alliance with Google, followed a few days later with a surprise request to exit the cableco consortium SpectrumCo. This comes on top of Sprint’s announcement two weeks ago that it will team with Clearwire to do nationwide WiMax.

And suddenly all those wise speculations about how Sprint won’t bid because it doesn’t have the cash and it has enough spectrum, Clearwire won’t bid because it’s too small to challenge the telcos, and Google won’t bid because they don’t have the expertise and don’t want to spend the money, need some serious recalculation. A Google/Sprint/Clearwire consortium (with possible help from Intel, which both owns a chunk of Clearwire and participated in the auction rulemaking as part of the “4G Coalition” with Google, Skype, and Yahoo!) looks like much more of a spectrum player than any of them alone. Sprint and Clearwire have the infrastructure and expertise, Google has the bucks and the need to expand into wireless. Further, depending on the nature of the partnership, Google could start testing and and marketing its wireless services now so that it does not have to wait until it has built and activated a network (which probably won’t be until 2010 at the earliest).

Meanwhile, what happens to SpectrumCo.? Granted the cablecos still have no plan for the licenses they got in the AWS auction (since, lets face it, the real reason to show up was to block DBS from getting a terrestrial broadband pipe), but to the extent they pretended to have a plan, they usually cited their ability to work with Sprint as a means of implementing it. So what happens now? Granted the cablecos still have tons of money to throw at this, but how will Wall St. treat their stocks if they look set to pour another couple of billion into a business without the benefit of an experienced partner with existing infrastructure? And besides, with the FCC adopting anonymous bidding, the cablecos will find it much harder (if not impossible) to target and block rivals without going all the way and actually winning the licenses. (Remember, blocking is usually cheap because you don’t usually have to spend the blocking premium, you just have to prove to the other guy that you are willing to spend the blocking premium. It’s like when tough guy walks in on shopkeeper and asks if shopkeeper would like to buy “insurance.” Tough guy doesn’t have to actually trash the store to get paid. As long as shopkeeper believes tough guy will break his legs, shopkeeper will pay to avoid testing the theory.)

So, a mere three days after the FCC announces rules, we find ourselves reexamining the conventional wisdom in light of changed events. McDowell rather relished the warning he gave Martin and the rest of the majority that it was “risky” to tailor the band plan to attract a single “white knight” who would become a new national broadband provider. Suddenly, Martin’s confidence that if you set the table folks will come to dinner seems a bit more justified.

But it’s still a few months until FCC forms to participate will be due, and anything can happen in between.

Stay tuned . . . . .

Shout Out for New Econ Blog

For those who subscribe to Tales of the Sausage Factory but not Wetmachine Main, I thought I would let you all know that my friend and ace economist Dr. Gregory Rose has started a new blog here at wetmachine called Econoklastic. You can read his first post here. Regular readers will recognize Greg’s name as the author of several spectrum studies that I quote incessantly, such as the ones describing how SpectrumCo and its wireless allies blocked competitors from getting licenses in last year’s AWS auction.

As you can tell from his first post, Greg is quite contrarian and willing to grind more than a few sacred cows into hamburger. It’s why we like to keep him around.

Stay tuned . . . .

Get Your Brackets Set for Tomorrow's Spectrum Sweet Sixteen!

In the FCC’s version of “April Madness,” the FCC will hold a meeting tomorrow (April 25). Among other items, the meeting will consider an Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the upcoming 700 MHz Auction.

Readers who plowed through my impossibly long field guide to the 700 MHz auction may recall that I highlighted a large number of issues and players that have clustered around this extremely important auction. Many critical filings and proposals (including, I am embarassed to admit, those of the public interest spectrum coalition) came in after the official deadline. (Hey! We’re busy! If someone wants to give Media Access Project a million dollars or two so we can stay on top of everything, email me!)

The combination of far reaching proposals and lack of time has prompted incumbents to challenge the FCC’s ability to grant these proposals because they do not comply with the “notice” requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The APA requires that an agency give everyone notice of what it plans to do and give interested parties a chance to comment. So the FCC will solve this problem by making some basic decisions now, and rolling over the remaining decisions to a Further Notice. Since we have a statutory deadline ticking away, parties will get only a month for comments and replies, and the FCC will make its final decisions at the end of May or early June. That way, they can still get to the auction by January 2008.

In other words, Wed. represents the first cut on how the FCC will proceed and the general direction it will go for the auction. Will it favor the incumbent push for large license blocks and open bidding? Will it allow the Frontline proposal to go forward? What about network neutrality?

Below I give my “spectrum bracket” for who gets to go from the Sweet Spectrum Sixteen to the Final Four. What’s likely to get cancelled, get renewed, or remains on “the bubble” for next season? Which proposals get “voted off the Island?” For my guesses, and my further entries for the next Stephen Colbert Meta-Free-For-All, see below . . .

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FCC Last Call Part II: Cyren Call Sings Again

They should have named the damn thing Phoenix Call, given how often this idea keeps getting resurected. OTOH, it better suits the nature of the beast to name it for creatures whose enticing song lured sailors to their deaths than for one of my favorite characters in Harry Potter.

As I wrote before on the Public Knowledge Blog, Cyren Call wants the FCC to give it 30 MHz of spectrum for free from the returned broadcast analog spectrum set aside for auction. Technically, Cyren Call wants that 30 MHz allocated to a “Public Safety Trust” that would then partner with a private sector organization, but it amounts to the same thing. In exchange, Cyren Call promises to build a nifty national broadband network that would be available to public safety entities when they need it. In order to finance the network without raising taxes or imposing costs on the public safety community, Cyren Call would operate the remaining 99.999% of capacity as a commercial venture. What a bargain! Of course, Cyren Call would kep any profit over and above actual expenses, to give it incentive to run the network “efficiently.”

I wish I did so well from doing good.

You would think that when public safety entities would get suspicious of a proposal that sounds horribly like: “DEAR PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITY. I OFFERING TO YOU MANY MEGAHURTS OF SPECTRUM. CONGRESS RECENTLY PASSED A LAW TO MAKE SPECTRUM AVAILABLE TO COMMERCIAL SECTOR, BUT I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE IT.” But while Cyren Call has encountered the harsh response from the incumbent wireless harpies, over 1300 “HONEST TRUSTWORTHY PUBLIC SAFETY ENTITY” commentors supported the Cyren Call proposal. Unsurprisingly, most supporting comments from public safety folks emphasized that the part of the proposal they really, really liked was the part about getting even more spectrum.

But Kevin Martin, who seems to be having a “celebrate the incumbent telco harpy” meeting this month, has thrown in an interesting apple of discord. The FCC proposes to create a system similar to Cyren Call, but on the 24 MHz already assigned to public safety rather than grabbing yet more spectrum (you can read the full Order here. In other words, the FCC seems to be saying to the public safety community “O.K., so do you all think this proposal is so wonderful when it doesn’t bring you another 30 MHz of prime spectrum?” Of course, it helps that this plan parallels a plan proposed by Verizon Wireless back in September, which is remarkably simlar to the Cyren Call plan but in the spectrum already allocated to public safety and inserting the words “Verizon Wireless” in every place you had the words “Cyren Call.”

More below . . . .

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